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James Comes to the Throne

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I

Charles died, and his brother came to the throne; but, though the person of the sovereign was changed, the love and awe with which the office was regarded were undiminished. Indeed, it seems that, of the two princes, James was, in spite of his religion, rather the favorite of the High Church party. He had been specially singled out as the mark of the Whigs; and this circumstance sufficed to make him the idol of the Tories. He called a parliament. The loyal gentry of the counties and the packed voters of the remodeled boroughs gave him a parliament such as England had not seen for a century, a parliament beyond all comparison the most obsequious that ever sate under a prince of the House of Stuart. One insurrectionary movement, indeed, took place in England, and another in Scotland. Both were put down with ease, and punished with tremendous severity. Even after that bloody circuit, which will never be forgotten while the English race exists in any part of the globe, no member of the House of Commons ventured to whisper even the mildest censure on Jeffreys. Edmund Waller, emboldened by his great age and his high reputation, attacked the cruelty of the military chiefs; and this is the brightest part of his long and checkered public life. But even Waller did not venture to arraign the still more odious cruelty of the Chief Justice. It is hardly too much to say that James, at that time, had little reason to envy the extent of authority possessed by Lewis the Fourteenth,

By what means this vast power was in three years broken down, by what perverse and frantic misgovernment the tyrant revived the spirit of the vanquished Whigs, turned to fixed hostility the neutrality of the trimmers, and drove from him the landed gentry, the Church, the army, his own creatures, his own children, is well known to our readers. But we wish to say something about one part of the question, which in our own time has a little puzzled some very worthy men, and about which the author of the "Continuation" before us has said much with which we can by no means concur.

James, it is said, declared himself a supporter of toleration. If he violated the constitution, he at least violated it for one of the noblest ends that any statesman ever had in view. His object was to free millions of his subjects from penal laws and disabilities which hardly any person now considers as just. He ought, therefore, to be regarded as blameless, or, at worst, as guilty only of employing irregular means to effect a most praiseworthy purpose. A very ingenious man, whom we believe to be a Catholic, Mr. Banim, has written a historical novel, of the literary merit of which we cannot speak very highly, for the purpose of inculcating this opinion. The editor of Mackintosh's Fragments assures us, that the standard of James bore the nobler inscription, and so forth; the meaning of which is, that William and the other authors of the Revolution were vile Whigs who drove out James from being a Radical; that the crime of the King was his going further in liberality than his subjects: that he was the real champion of freedom; and that Somers, Locke, Newton, and other narrow-minded people of the same sort, were the real bigots and oppressors.

Now, we admit that if the premises can be made out, the conclusion follows. If it can be shown that James did sincerely wish to establish perfect freedom of conscience, we shall think his conduct deserving of indulgence, if not of praise. We shall not be inclined to censure harshly even his illegal acts. We conceive that so noble and salutary an object would have justified resistance on the part of subjects. We can therefore scarcely deny that it would at least excuse encroachment on the part of a king. But it can be proved, we think, by the strongest evidence, that James had no such object in view, and that, under the pretence of establishing perfect religious liberty, he was trying to establish the ascendancy and the exclusive dominion of the Church of Rome.

It is true that he professed himself a supporter of toleration. Every sect clamors for toleration when it is down. We have not the smallest doubt that, when Bonner was in the Marshalsea, he thought it a very hard thing that a man should be locked up in a gaol for not being able to understand the words, "This is my body," in the same way with the lords of the council. It would not be very wise to conclude that a beggar is full of Christian charity, because he assures you that God will reward you if you give him a penny; or that a soldier is humane because he cries out lustily for quarter when a bayonet is at his throat. The doctrine which from the very first origin of religious dissensions, has been held by all bigots of all sects, when condensed into a few words, and stripped of rhetorical disguise is simply this: I am in the right, and you are in the wrong. When you are the stronger you ought to tolerate me; for it is your duty to tolerate truth. But when I am the stronger, I shall persecute you; for it is my duty to persecute error.

The Catholics lay under severe restraints in England. James wished to remove those restraints; and therefore he held a language favorable to liberty of conscience. But the whole history of his life proves that this was a mere pretence. In 1679 he held similar language, in a conversation with the magistrates of Amsterdam; and the author of the "Continuation" refers to the circumstance as a proof that the King had long entertained a strong feeling on the subject. Unhappily it proves only the utter insincerity of all the King's later professions. If he had pretended to be converted to the doctrines of toleration after his accession to the throne, some credit might have been due to him. But we know most certainly that, in 1679, and long after that year, James was a most bloody and remorseless persecutor. After 1679, he was placed at the head of the government of Scotland. And what had been his conduct in that country? He had hunted down the scattered remnant of the Covenanters with a barbarity of which no other prince of modern times, Philip the Second excepted, had ever shown himself capable. He had indulged himself in the amusement of seeing the torture of the Boot inflicted on the wretched enthusiasts whom persecution had driven to resistance. After his accession, almost his first act was to obtain from the servile parliament of Scotland a law for inflicting death on preachers at conventicles held within houses, and on both preachers and hearers at conventicles held in the open air. All this he had done, for a religion which was not his own. All this he had done, not in defense of truth against error, but in defense of one damnable error against another, in defense of the Episcopalian against the Presbyterian apostasy. Lewis the Fourteenth is justly censured for trying to dragoon his subjects to heaven. But it was reserved for James to torture and murder for the difference between two roads to hell. And this man, so deeply imbued with the poison of intolerance that, rather than not persecute at all, he would persecute people out of one heresy into another, this man is held up as the champion of religious liberty. This man, who persecuted in the cause of the unclean panther, would not, we are told, have persecuted for the sake of the milk-white and immortal hind.

And what was the conduct of James at the very time when he was professing zeal for the rights of conscience? Was he not even then persecuting to the very best of his power? Was he not employing all his legal prerogatives, and many prerogatives which were not legal, for the purpose of forcing his subjects to conform to his creed? While he pretended to abhor the laws which excluded Dissenters from office, was he not himself dismissing from office his ablest, his most experienced, his most faithful servants, on account of their religious opinions? For what offence was Lord Rochester driven from the Treasury? He was closely connected with the Royal House. He was at the head of the Tory party. He had stood firmly by James in the most trying emergencies. But he would not change his religion, and he was dismissed. That we may not be suspected of overstating the case, Dr. Lingard, a very competent, and assuredly not a very willing witness, shall speak for us. "The King," says that able but partial writer, "was disappointed. He complained to Barillon of the obstinacy and insincerity of the treasurer; and the latter received from the French envoy a very intelligible hint that the loss of office would result from his adhesion to his religious creed. He was, however, inflexible; and James, after a long delay, communicated to him, but with considerable embarrassment and many tears, his final determination. He had hoped, he said, that Rochester, by conforming to the Church of Rome, would have spared him the unpleasant task; but kings must sacrifice their feelings to their duty." And this was the King who wished to have all men of all sects rendered alike capable of holding office. These proceedings were alone sufficient to take away all credit from his liberal professions; and such, as we learn from the dispatches of the Papal Nuncio, was really the effect. "Pare," says D'Adda, writing a few days after the retirement of Rochester, "pare che gli animi sono inaspriti della voce che corre tra il popolo, d'esser cacciato il detto ministro per non essere Cattolico, percio tirarsi al esterminio de' Protestanti" Was it ever denied that the favours of the Crown were constantly bestowed and withheld purely on account of the religious opinions of the claimants? And if these things were done in the green tree, what would have been done in the dry? If James acted thus when he had the strongest motives to court his Protestant subjects, what course was he likely to follow when he had obtained from them all that he asked?

Who again was his closest ally? And what was the policy of that ally? The subjects of James, it is true, did not know half the infamy of their sovereign. They did not know, as we know, that, while he was lecturing them on the blessings of equal toleration, he was constantly congratulating his good brother Lewis on the success of that intolerant policy which had turned the fairest tracts of France into deserts, and driven into exile myriads of the most peaceable, industrious, and skilful artisans in the world. But the English did know that the two princes were bound together in the closest union. They saw their sovereign with toleration on his lips, separating himself from those states which had first set the example of toleration, and connecting himself by the strongest ties with the most faithless and merciless persecutor who could then be found on any continental throne.

By what advice again was James guided? Who were the persons in whom he placed the greatest confidence, and who took the warmest interest in his schemes? The ambassador of France, the Nuncio of Rome, and Father Petre the Jesuit. And is not this enough to prove that the establishment of equal toleration was not his plan? Was Lewis for toleration? Was the Vatican for toleration? Was the order of Jesuits for toleration? We know that the liberal professions of James were highly approved by those very governments, by those very societies, whose theory and practice it notoriously was to keep no faith with heretics and to give no quarter to heretics. And are we, in order to save James's reputation for sincerity, to believe that all at once those governments and those societies had changed their nature, had discovered the criminality of all their former conduct, had adopted principles far more liberal than those of Locke, of Leighton, or of Tillotson? Which is the more probable supposition, that the King who had revoked the edict of Nantes, the Pope under whose sanction the Inquisition was then imprisoning and burning, the religious order which, in every controversy in which it had ever been engaged, had called in the aid either of the magistrate or of the assassin, should have become as thorough-going friends to religious liberty as Dr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson, or that a Jesuit-ridden bigot should be induced to dissemble for the good of the Church?

The game which the Jesuits were playing was no new game. A hundred years before they had preached up political freedom, just as they were now preaching up religious freedom. They had tried to raise the republicans against Henry the Fourth and Elizabeth, just as they were now trying to raise the Protestant Dissenters against the Established Church. In the sixteenth century, the tools of Philip the Second were constantly preaching doctrines that bordered on Jacobinism, constantly insisting on the right of the people to cashier kings, and of every private citizen to plunge his dagger into the heart of a wicked ruler. In the seventeenth century, the persecutors of the Huguenots were crying out against the tyranny of the Established Church of England, and vindicating with the utmost fervor the right of every man to adore God after his own fashion. In both cases they were alike insincere. In both cases the fool who had trusted them would have found himself miserably duped. A good and wise man would doubtless disapprove of the arbitrary measures of Elizabeth. But would he have really served the interests of political liberty, if he had put faith in the professions of the Romish Casuists, joined their party, and taken a share in Northumberland's revolt, or in Babington's conspiracy? Would he not have been assisting to establish a far worse tyranny than that which he was trying to put down? In the same manner, a good and wise man would doubtless see very much to condemn in the conduct of the Church of England under the Stuarts. But was he therefore to join the King and the Catholics against that Church? And was it not plain that, by so doing, he would assist in setting up a spiritual despotism, compared with which the despotism of the Establishment was as a little finger to the loins, as a rod of whips to a rod of scorpions?

Lewis had a far stronger mind than James. He had at least an equally high sense of honor. He was in a much less degree the slave of his priests. His Protestant subjects had all the security for their rights of conscience which law and solemn compact could give. Had that security been found sufficient? And was not one such instance enough for one generation?

The plan of James seems to us perfectly intelligible. The toleration which, with the concurrence and applause of all the most cruel persecutors in Europe, he was offering to his people, was meant simply to divide them. This is the most obvious and vulgar of political artifices. We have seen it employed a hundred times within our own memory. At this moment we see the Carlists in France hallooing on the Extreme Left against the Centre Left. Four years ago the same trick was practiced in England. We heard old buyers and sellers of boroughs, men who had been seated in the House of Commons by the unsparing use of ejectments, and who had, through their whole lives, opposed every measure which tended to increase the power of the democracy, abusing the Reform Bill as not democratic enough, appealing to the laboring classes, execrating the tyranny of the ten-pound householders, and exchanging compliments and caresses with the most noted incendiaries of our time. The cry of universal toleration was employed by James, just as the cry of universal suffrage was lately employed by some veteran Tories. The object of the mock democrats of our time was to produce a conflict between the middle classes and the multitude, and thus to prevent all reform. The object of James was to produce a conflict between the Church and the Protestant Dissenters, and thus to facilitate the victory of the Catholics over both.

We do not believe that he could have succeeded. But we do not think his plan so utterly frantic and hopeless as it has generally been thought; and we are sure that, if he had been allowed to gain his first point, the people would have had no remedy left but an appeal to physical force, which would have been made under most unfavorable circumstances. He conceived that the Tories, hampered by their professions of passive obedience, would have submitted to his pleasure, and that the Dissenters, seduced by his delusive promises of relief, would have given him strenuous support. In this way he hoped to obtain a law, nominally for the removal of all religious disabilities, but really for the excluding of all Protestants from all offices. It is never to be forgotten that a prince who has all the patronage of the State in his hands can, without violating the letter of the law, establish whatever test he chooses. And, from the whole conduct of James, we have not the smallest doubt that he would have availed himself of his power to the utmost. The statute-book might declare all Englishmen equally capable of holding office; but to what end, if all offices were in the gift of a sovereign resolved not to employ a single heretic? We firmly believe that not one post in the government, in the army, in the navy, on the bench, or at the bar, not one peerage, nay not one ecclesiastical benefice in the royal gift, would have been bestowed on any Protestant of any persuasion. Even while the King had still strong motives to dissemble, he had made a Catholic Dean of Christ Church and a Catholic President of Magdalen College. There seems to be no doubt that the See of York was kept vacant for another Catholic. If James had been suffered to follow this course for twenty years, every military man from a general to a drummer, every officer of a ship, every judge, every King's counsel, every lord-lieutenant of a county, every justice of the peace, every ambassador, every minister of state, every person employed in the royal household, in the custom-house, in the post-office, in the excise, would have been a Catholic. The Catholics would have had a majority in the House of Lords, even if that majority had been made, as Sunderland threatened, by bestowing coronets on a whole troop of the Guards. Catholics would have had, we believe, the chief weight even in the Convocation. Every bishop, every dean, every holder of a crown living, every head of every college which was subject to the royal power, would have belonged to the Church of Rome. Almost all the places of liberal education would have been under the direction of Catholics. The whole power of licensing books would have been in the hands of Catholics. All this immense mass of power would have been steadily supported by the arms and by the gold of France, and would have descended to an heir whose whole education would have been conducted with a view to one single end, the complete re-establishment of the Catholic religion. The House of Commons would have been the only legal obstacle. But the rights of a great portion of the electors were at the mercy of the courts of law; and the courts of law were absolutely dependent on the Crown. We cannot therefore think it altogether impossible that a House might have been packed which would have restored the days of Mary.

We certainly do not believe that this would have been tamely borne. But we do believe that, if the nation had been deluded by the King's professions of toleration, all this would have been attempted, and could have been averted only by a most bloody and destructive contest, in which the whole Protestant population would have been opposed to the Catholics. On the one side would have been a vast numerical superiority. But on the other side would have been the whole organization of government, and two great disciplined armies, that of James, and that of Lewis. We do not doubt that the nation would have achieved its deliverance. But we believe that the struggle would have shaken the whole fabric of society, and that the vengeance of the conquerors would have been terrible and unsparing.

But James was stopped at the outset. He thought himself secure of the Tories, because they professed to consider all resistance as sinful, and of the Protestant Dissenters, because he offered them relief. He was in the wrong as to both. The error into which he fell about the Dissenters was very natural. But the confidence which he placed in the loyal assurances of the High Church party, was the most exquisitely ludicrous proof of folly that a politician ever gave.

Only imagine a man acting for one single day on the supposition that all his neighbors believe all that they profess, and act up to all that they believe. Imagine a man acting on the supposition that he may safely offer the deadliest injuries and insults to everybody who says that revenge is sinful; or that he may safely entrust all his property without security to any person who says that it is wrong to steal. Such a character would be too absurd for the wildest farce. Yet the folly of James did not stop short of this incredible extent. Because the clergy had declared that resistance to oppression was in no case lawful, he conceived that he might oppress them exactly as much as he chose, without the smallest danger of resistance. He quite forgot that, when they magnified the royal prerogative, the prerogative was exerted on their side, that, when they preached endurance, they had nothing to endure, that, when they declared it unlawful to resist evil, none but Whigs and Dissenters suffered any evil. It had never occurred to him that a man feels the calamities of his enemies with one sort of sensibility, and his own with quite a different sort. It had never occurred to him as possible that a reverend divine might think it the duty of Baxter and Bunyan to bear insults and to lie in dungeons without murmuring, and yet when he saw the smallest chance that his own prebend might be transferred to some sly Father from Italy or Flanders, might begin to discover much matter for useful meditation in the texts touching Ehud's knife and Jael's hammer. His majesty was not aware, it should seem, that people do sometimes reconsider their opinions; and that nothing more disposes a man to reconsider his opinions, than a suspicion, that, if he adheres to them, he is very likely to be a beggar or a martyr. Yet it seems strange that these truths should have escaped the royal mind. Those Churchmen who had signed the Oxford Declaration in favor of passive obedience had also signed the thirty-nine Articles. And yet the very man who confidently expected that, by a little coaxing and bullying, he should induce them to renounce the Articles, was thunderstruck when he found that they were disposed to soften down the doctrines of the Declaration. Nor did it necessarily follow that, even if the theory of the Tories had undergone no modification, their practice would coincide with their theory. It might, one should think, have crossed the mind of a man of fifty, who had seen a great deal of the world, that people sometimes do what they think wrong. Though a prelate might hold that Paul directs us to obey even a Nero, it might not on that account be perfectly safe to treat the Right Reverend Father in God after the fashion of Nero, in the hope that he would continue to obey on the principles of Paul. The King indeed had only to look at home. He was at least as much attached to the Catholic Church as any Tory gentleman or clergyman could be to the Church of England. Adultery was at least as clearly and strongly condemned by his Church as resistance by the Church of England. Yet his priests could not keep him from Arabella Sedley. While he was risking his crown for the sake of his soul, he was risking his soul for the sake of an ugly, dirty mistress. There is something delightfully grotesque in the spectacle of a man who, while living in the habitual violation of his own known duties, is unable to believe that any temptation can draw any other person aside from the path of virtue.

James was disappointed in all his calculations. His hope was that the Tories would follow their principles, and that the Nonconformists would follow their interests. Exactly the reverse took place. The great body of the Tories sacrificed the principle of non-resistance to their interests; the great body of Nonconformists rejected the delusive offers of the King, and stood firmly by their principles. The two parties whose strife had convulsed the empire during half a century were united for a moment; and all that vast royal power which three years before had seemed immovably fixed vanished at once like chaff in a hurricane.

The very great length to which this article has already been extended makes it impossible for us to discuss, as we had meant to do, the characters and conduct of the leading English statesmen at this crisis. But we must offer a few remarks on the spirit and tendency of the Revolution of 1688.

The editor of this volume quotes the Declaration of Right, and tells us that, by looking at it, we may "judge at a glance whether the authors of the Revolution achieved all they might and ought, in their position, to have achieved; whether the Commons of England did their duty to their constituents, their country, posterity, and universal freedom." We are at a loss to imagine how he can have read and transcribed the Declaration of Right, and yet have so utterly misconceived its nature. That famous document is, as its very name imports, declaratory, and not remedial. It was never meant to be a measure of reform. It neither contained, nor was designed to contain, any allusion to those innovations which the authors of the Revolution considered as desirable, and which they speedily proceeded to make. The Declaration was merely a recital of certain old and wholesome laws which had been violated by the Stuarts, and a solemn protest against the validity of any precedent which might be set up in opposition to those laws. The words run thus: "They do claim, demand, and insist upon all and singular the premises as their undoubted rights and liberties." Before a man begins to make improvements on his estate, he must know its boundaries. Before a legislature sits down to reform a constitution, it is fit to ascertain what that constitution really is. This is all that the Declaration was intended to do; and to quarrel with it because it did not directly introduce any beneficial changes is to quarrel with meat for not being fuel.

The principle on which the authors of the Revolution acted cannot be mistaken. They were perfectly aware that the English institutions stood in need of reform. But they also knew that an important point was gained if they could settle once for all, by a solemn compact, the matters which had, during several generations, been in controversy between Parliament and the Crown. They therefore most judiciously abstained from mixing up the irritating and perplexing question of what ought to be the law with the plain question of what was the law. As to the claims set forth in the Declaration of Right, there was little room for debate, Whigs and Tories were generally agreed as to the illegality of the dispensing power and of taxation imposed by the royal prerogative. The articles were therefore adjusted in a very few days. But if the Parliament had determined to revise the whole constitution, and to provide new securities against misgovernment, before proclaiming the new sovereign, months would have been lost in disputes. The coalition which had delivered the country would have been instantly dissolved. The Whigs would have quarreled with the Tories, the Lords with the Commons, the Church with the Dissenters; and all this storm of conflicting interests and conflicting theories would have been raging round a vacant throne. In the meantime, the greatest power on the Continent was attacking our allies, and meditating a descent on our own territories. Dundee was preparing to raise the Highlands. The authority of James was still owned by the Irish. If the authors of the Revolution had been fools enough to take this course, we have little doubt that Luxembourg would have been upon them in the midst of their constitution-making. They might probably have been interrupted in a debate on Filmer's and Sydney's theories of government by the entrance of the musketeers of Lewis's household, and have been marched off, two and two, to frame imaginary monarchies and commonwealths in the Tower. We have had in our own time abundant experience of the effects of such folly. We have seen nation after nation enslaved, because the friends of liberty wasted in discussions upon abstract questions the time which ought to have been employed in preparing for vigorous national defense. This editor, apparently, would have had the English Revolution of 1688 end as the Revolutions of Spain and Naples ended in our days. Thank God, our deliverers were men of a very different order from the Spanish and Neapolitan legislators. They might on many subjects hold opinions which, in the nineteenth century, would not be considered as liberal. But they were not dreaming pedants. They were statesmen accustomed to the management of great affairs. Their plans of reform were not so extensive as those of the lawgivers of Cadiz; but what they planned, that they effected; and what they effected, that they maintained against the fiercest hostility at home and abroad.

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Critical And Historical Essays, Volume I, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, 1843

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